When I started my ’09 student teaching placement in January, I was warned by my cooperating teacher that my freshman class was “crazy.” Considering that she also warned me about her philosophy that the only way for a student teacher to learn to teach was to be on her own without anyone else in the room, I began from a place that was admittedly intimidated.
Day one was anarchy. My class was composed of thirty-some kids. Some kids who have been in prison. Some kids who are gang members. Some kids who barely speak English. Some kids who would rather physically fight in class than sit next to who they were assigned to sit next to. And a whole bunch more who simply wouldn’t give me the time of day, talking over me and back to me, no matter how engaging my lesson was. Screaming, laughing, and shrieking–these children were my living nightmare. I was harrowed, on edge. The class was off the chart. I didn’t even want to go to school. I had no idea how I would survive for the next eighteen weeks. The only thing that kept me going were my twelfth-grade students, who were an absolute joy to teach. But the freshman made me feel sick.
I had always believed that kicking a student out of the room was counterproductive and that it sent the message “I can’t deal with you, and you can’t learn, so I give up.” But I soon found that if I never cracked down hard, my class would think I was a pushover. Encouraged by the wise words of my dad–“Be compassionate and fair, but you can’t take any crap”–I bumped up my bravado. One day during class, a particular boy would not sit down and continued talking back to me. I threw open the door, and said, “Get out.”
“Aw, come on, Miss. You don’t really mean that.”
Thrusting a referral into the hands of the security escort, I slammed the door behind the student as he walked out of the room. Then, I heard a sweet sound: total silence. All eyes on me, I continued with my lesson.
I had to write several more referrals before the message was clear, but my freshmen learned to respect me. And I learned that sometimes, when a student is out of control and clearly jeopardizing the learning environment for the rest of the classroom, he or she has to go. Every once in a while, a show of force is neccesary in order to create the environment of respect and professionalism that’s conducive to the way I prefer to teach: with a gentle, understanding, welcoming nature.
It wasn’t just the moments of harsh consequence that helped my class. It was also a slow journey of teaching interpersonal skills: How do we act in discussion? How do we listen? Why is respect important? What is the mature way to resolve conflict? What do we do when our emotions make it difficult for us to think straight? These were topics that I wove into my lessons, that I taught and assessed. And they learned them.
The day that I knew my freshman had transformed was the presentation day for my speech unit. We had discussed many times why absolute respect and attention was due to a speaker, and how much courage it takes to speak in public. We also talked about the importance of support and encouragement. As my students prepared to give three-minute speeches on social issues that mattered to them, I felt nervous. Many of these kids started out the year hating each other’s guts. I was afraid I had set them up for a brawl. When the first student walked up to give her speech, I was astounded. The class erupted in cheers and applause of encouragement. As the speaker cleared her throat, they all fell silent. She gave her speech with poise and grace, after which she was met with a standing ovation. And it wasn’t just her. My students showed the same support and respect for every single speaker. When one student began to cry in fear when she froze before her speech, another girl got up and stood with her arm around the other, reading the first few lines with her until she was reading it on her own. It was all the more remarkable because these two had been bitter enemies at the beginning of the semester. After she sat down, one boy raised his hand to say, “I am so proud of her for going up there and facing her fear. ” Everyone cheered in agreement. I cried. I told them how proud I was. It was incredible.
Now, with two weeks to go, I can’t believe the transformation that has occured in that classroom. I can now laugh and joke with my freshman. I trust them. While things aren’t always perfect, and sometimes they still get wild, I have an intense bond with these students, many of whom stop to talk to me throughout the school day. They have learned that I deeply respect them, that I want to give them a strong learning experience, and, yes, I will shut down misbehavior when it goes too far. I have learned that there is no such thing as “crazy.” We as teachers owe it to our students, no matter how much of a nightmare they start out as, to create an environment where they can shine.